The dorm system’s inequalities
Devon Chenelle | Monday, January 22, 2018
Like most traumatic memories, I remember it like it was yesterday.
It began when I followed my friend into his hall, Morrissey Manor. When we entered his room, it took a solid minute to overcome my incredulous terror and apprehend that my friend shared this habitation — the size of a small walk-in closet, cramped with desks, beds, with so little space that, if I were a little fatter, I’d need to turn sideways to move — with another person. With pallid skin and shaking hands, I suddenly, horribly, understood the long-standing campus grievance about housing costs that, inexplicably, are the same for residents of all dorms, now mandatory living for three years. Disparities between dorm quality and price are only the tip of the residential injustice iceberg. Although students’ dissatisfaction with on-campus housing’s inequitable, exploitative and paternalistic practices is frequently and widely evinced, serious debate about, let alone actual improvement of, these failures is curiously absent from campus.
Though Notre Dame nickels and dimes her undergraduates a thousand different ways, none of them is more transparently grasping than the $14,890 on-campus students are annually charged for “Room & Board.” This rent, questionably high to begin with for a shared bedroom in a grim rust belt town, is obscene for many students’ accommodations. While residents of newer dorms enjoy spacious rooms, chic common areas and ample amenities, others are condemned to halls with tiny rooms (Morrissey’s doubles, at 108 square feet, are half the size of Duncan’s), insufficient public spaces (some dorms lack gyms, a necessity given our general fitness facilities’ shambolic state), and even want for air conditioning. Besides unfairly charging students, this policy deteriorates campus life; cramped living quarters discomfit already stressed students, and housing’s risible cost undermines dorm community by driving undergraduates to roomier and cheaper accommodations off campus.
Yet this is not the dorm system’s most egregious inequity. That dubious distinction belongs to dorm life’s gender-based differences. In characteristic Notre Dame fashion, male and female experiences of residential life are severely different. Everyone knows the common complaints — girls can’t host pregames with music and a small crowd, let alone a full-on dorm party, resident assistants (RAs) are more intrusive and several rules ignored in guys’ dorms are vigorously enforced. Worse are the stories I’ve heard about the verbal viciousness of some rectors in women’s dorms, with girls recounting tales of being told by their rector that they are ruining their lives, making terrible choices and other tales of name-calling and shaming.
Further examples of student housing’s failures abound. There is brown sink water in Lyons and Stanford, roach infestations in Cavanaugh, Stanford and Morrissey, and a literal infiltration of Sorin by bats. Any one of these incidents should prompt immediate resolution and evaluation of what protocols allowed it to happen. Instead, the University’s languid apathy correcting these matters is a stinging reminder it must be forced to care about student welfare.
The administration will never freely change its cash-cow housing policy. Until students agitate for reform, undergraduates will endure increasingly exorbitant charges exacted from them by officials lining their pockets in a literal golden building.
Sadly, the current political climate on campus has proven incapable of exciting the sort of activity necessary to affect change, for, despite unpopular decisions recently unveiled by an imperious administration, not a single protest has bestirred the Golden Dome’s bean counters. Amidst these accumulating controversies, student government has remained a pliant and disengaged figurehead, so thoroughly shirking its duties to its constituents — namely, to convey students’ concerns to the administration and then, once ignored and dismissed, to muster its political capital to harass the school into the reforms students need — it would be scandalous if anyone cared.
While the student body is left rudderless by limply complicit “representatives,” real change is impossible. Of course, removal and replacement of the present administration’s cadres will not magically fix campus’s problems. However, it will constitute a necessary first step in a long project aimed at restoring students’ voices to campus decisions. The next steps, should the upcoming election’s victor understand students’ need for an indefatigable advocate, include restoring honesty to the administration’s financial dealings with students, making dorm life responsive to students’ desires and lifestyles and bringing services to campus, such as the free laundry taken for granted at innumerable other institutions that would never dream of dropping a casual $500,000,000 on stadium expansion or an 11-figure endowment.
Next month, Notre Dame will go to the (online) ballot box to elect her student government. If students make their real concerns loud and clear, they cannot fail to rouse up a genuine reform candidate, or even candidates, whom, if elected, can begin leading Our Lady’s University towards the fairer, more participatory and ultimately more prosperous future achievable only by partnership between students and administrators.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.